Saturday, July 26, 2008

INTERVIEWS: James O’Shea & Philipp Karner

‘Kiss the Bride’ (director, C. Jay Cox)
2007 / USA / 99 mins
Screened Saturday, July 12, 16:00 – Wald 9
& Sunday, July 20, 18:15 – Spiral Hall

James O’Shea is perhaps your typical American hunk in appearance only. Beneath the tanned skin, the perfect teeth – often glinting in a mischievous, boyish smile – and the chiselled body is a man utterly at ease with himself and those around him. This is all the more impressive given his small town Southern background, where the borders of masculinity are rigorously policed, and anything that strays from that norm is liable to be labelled ‘queer’. He has, I think, the most difficult role in ‘Kiss the Bride’, because he has to persuade us that a man can have a single, deeply intimate relationship with another man, without being gay, and still choose for himself something like the heterosexual ideal of marriage and monogamy, which challenges all of our ideas of sexuality, gay and straight. I began our interview by telling him sincerely that I thought he had done an excellent job of persuading us of the emotional reality of this character.

Guy: … you know, as a gay person, I’m often irritated by films in which straight guys play gay characters, because frequently there is a kind of escape clause built into the film for the actor. At some point, something comes up to suggest that the character is not really gay. But in this film, I think you really have the toughest role. People can accept gay characters [like Matt] now, as long as gay is gay and straight is straight. But you have to persuade the audience that someone who is not gay would have a relationship like this [with Matt] and stand up for it at the end as your character [Ryan] does, and they have to buy it. If they don’t buy your performance, then the movie is sunk. So congratulations for pulling that off.

James: Thank you, that means a lot to me. Yeah, there is definitely a conflict there that I felt I needed to be true to in order to make it come across for the audience. You try to do your job in a way that you bring that conflict the character is experiencing to life in a way that is three-dimensional.

Guy: But how do you do that, exactly?

James: You have to sort of find yourself in the most conflicted way you can, in order to sell that conflict on the screen.

Guy: Do you know of anyone in your own life who has been through something like this? I have certainly known of a friend of friends who, for whatever reason, developed a very intimate relationship with one other man, but his is not gay, and is now married to a woman.

James: No, I don’t know anyone who went through that. But I’ll tell you, I come from a small town in the south where gay and straight is very rigid, and people don’t stray from talking about anything that goes outside the norm of a ‘straight’ conversation. They don’t veer off into anything that might make them uncomfortable. I like to think of myself as having more aspects than that – that I can be poetic and artistic with what I do. But it’s uncomfortable for most guys. We are still struggling with that as a society.

Guy: So how did you come to be an actor?

James: I was actually started as an athlete. I was a soccer player attending college on an athletic scholarship – I wasn’t going to acting school. My brother was a musician, though, who went to Harvard, so I knew there were other possibilities. I was injured and lost my scholarship, so I needed to find something else. My girlfriend at the time introduced me to modeling. That led me California and eventually to acting.

Guy: Actors who play gay roles are always being asked what it was like to do the love scenes. (I think it’s actually a kind of homophobic question.) I mean, you guys are professionals. You’ve been working for maybe 10 years. But what about when you were just starting out? It has to be different when you are a teenager or a young adult and you haven’t dealt with this stuff yet.

James: Yeah, I was a shy fucked up kid. I had a lot of stuff to work through.

Guy: And how did you do that?

James: Just by making every mistake you can make! When I think back to the first performance I gave, or the first relationship I was in, I don’t even know who that person was [i.e. himself]. But you know, my feeling is that the more times you fall on your face, the more colors you have to show to the world.

Guy: It seems to me a lot of American actors enter the business through non-traditional routes. Unlike British actors, who for the most part are classically trained in theatre first. Have you done any theatre?

James: You’re right. And, no, I never did theatre. I took some acting classes in California, and I did some scenes from Shakespeare and that sort of thing.

Guy: I imagine L.A. is a pretty crazy place to live.

James: It is. New York is all about Broadway. But L.A. is all about movies and television. So anybody who wants to be a movie star ends up there. It’s tough – you are literally competing with the whole world.

Guy: Where do you see your career going, or where would you like to see it go?

James: Of course, I want to be able to choose my roles, not just have to take whatever comes along. I think you have to tap into some sort of positive philosophy and just envision the top and go for it. I need to work as an actor and be creative with what I do. So my ultimate goal is just to be fully realized as an artist.

Guy: How are you enjoying Japan?

James: I love sake! I love sushi! I think Japanese girls are super sexy. I like the ritualistic qualities to traditional Japanese culture, and the attention to detail. I mean, even this building [the Spiral Hall] is an example – everything is just so.

Guy: Have you had a chance to get out and explore Tokyo at all?

James: Yeah, we came with a group of friends. So we did Tsukiji – the fish market. We did shopping in Harajuku and visited Electric City [i.e. Akihabara, known throughout the world as a destination for cheap electronics and the main stomping ground for ‘Otaku’ – obsessed fans of manga an anime]. We went up to Ueno Park and checked out some of the museums there. I love just walking around the city and discovering things by accident.

Guy: So have you had any ‘Lost in Translation’ moments?

James: Crossing that huge intersection in Shibuya was a ‘Lost in Translation’ moment. Also, I’ve found that my humour doesn’t really work here.

Guy: Yeah, sarcasm sometimes doesn’t go over. They don’t seem to understand it.

James: And that’s my humour!

We’ll hear about this again when I put the same question to James’s co-star Phillip Karner.

Incidentally, Philipp’s brother – a beaming blond boy of 19 who has just completed his one year of mandatory service in the Austrian military – came along for the ride, and appeared to be getting every bit as much attention as his brother and James. Granted, both of the Karner boys are very easy on the eyes! But you have to wonder what purpose a picture with a random white stranger – even if a very cute one – serves in the symbolic universe of those festival goers (and there were a lot of them) who insisted on getting their picture taken with him. In any case, he was a very gracious subject, and didn’t seem in any way to mind the attention of his admirers, regardless of their gender!

Guy: So you have quite an interesting story. You grew up in Austria, but now you are an American actor working in Los Angeles. How did that happen?

Philipp: I came to the U.S. when I was 19, after I finished my year in the Austrian military. Everyone has to do it, which sucks. I just always knew as a little kid that I wanted to be an actor and that the U.S. was the place to do it, so I came over the first chance I got.

Guy: How did you break into the industry?

Philipp: I settled in New York first, where I studied acting at the Lee Strasberg Studio [famous graduates of this school include Anne Bancroft, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Paul Newman and Al Pacino]. I did some shows, sort off-off-Broadway, and then I got small roles on ‘Sex in the City’ and ‘The Sopranos.’ After 3 years in New York, I moved to Los Angeles in 2001.

Guy: L.A. must be kind of a crazy place to live. I was talking to James about this.

Philipp: It can be, sure, but I love Los Angeles. There is a lot nature you can access easily. You can have a dog there and a bigger house. It’s harder to do those things in New York. So you can make L.A. whatever you want it to be.

Guy: I don’t want to ask that standard question about doing love scenes – I mean, you are a professional actor with years of experience.

Philipp: Yeah, it’s hard to make those moments seem real, because it is very technical. You have all these lights and machines and people hovering around you, and you just have to focus on what’s going on between those two characters. Everybody knows what it is like to be in love and to be confused. So you just focus on that emotional aspect and ask yourself, ‘What would I do in that situation?’

Guy: You mentioned in the Q&A that you worked at a gay bar for four years. What did you learn about gay culture or gay men from that experience?

Philipp: I learned that everyone is crazy when they are drunk! But also that we are all looking for the same things – for company, love, companionship – it doesn’t matter what your sexuality is, that’s just human nature. You see people who clearly want something more substantial, but they are looking for it in casual encounter after casual encounter. So, I think it helped me to see that sometimes we are confused about what we are looking for, or we’re looking for it in the wrong places.

Guy: I’ve heard that the film industry is very hard on relationships. You know, you are constantly meeting new, interesting, attractive people. You often have to go away for long periods of time to work on a film.

Philipp: Yeah, it is tough on relationships. But if you are committed and serious about someone, you can make it work. If you’re not, then there are a lot of temptations and your relationships won’t last long if you’re working in the industry.

Guy: Years ago Ian McKellen—

Philipp: Who, by the way, is my favourite actor.

Guy: Oh, really?

Philipp: And my favourite writer is Ian McEwan [who wrote ‘Atonement’, recently turned into a successful film.]

Guy: Ian McKellen said that one of these days a really talented young actor would come out of the closet and everyone would love him and he’d make a lot of money for his agents and the studios. But it hasn’t happened. Why do you think that is?

Philipp: I don’t think the country [i.e. America] is ready for it yet. The film industry is about money, and that means the centre of the country. There is a huge number of people out there between New ‘York and L.A. that are just not ready for it. It’s very idealistic to think that you can be open about your sexuality, but the world is just not ready for it yet. Knowing that a man is gay immediately emasculates him in the eyes of many people. That’s unfortunate, but that’s the reality.

Guy: In the film there is this moment where Tori talks about a happy kid who gets an average report card and is then made miserable because his parents view him as ‘damaged goods’. The message is that it is okay to be average. But it is coming in a Hollywood film filled with people who are not average. So how seriously are we supposed to take that message, or how seriously do you take it?

Philipp: If you shot a movie with a bunch of average looking people, unfortunately no one would go to see it.

Guy: You just described most of British cinema!

Philipp: And I love gritty British cinema. But most people want a fantasy when they go to a movie.

Guy: But I mean L.A. must be full of people who went there with big dreams and didn’t quite make it. How are they supposed to feel about themselves? At the end of the day, it has to be okay to not be Tom Cruise.

Philipp: And I would hate to be someone at that level of fame. I think that’s a kind of hell. They don’t seem like happy people to me. As long as I can work and make films that I am proud of, that’s enough for me.

Guy: So have you had any ‘Lost in Translation’ moments?

Philipp: Only because of James! His humour doesn’t go over so well here!

Guy: Yeah, we talked about that! Sarcasm is not well understood.

Philipp: I am fascinated by the culture of politeness here. Having lived in New York, where everybody is in your face, it’s pretty incredible to be in a city this size and to find everyone so polite. It’s a nice thing.

Philipp, James and C. Jay were all due to leave the next day. James and Philipp both expressed regret at not being able to see more of the country, but promised to return soon. We suggested they come in spring, for Sakura, since the heat of July is probably not the best time to visit! But both of them made a big impression on our audience, and I’m sure lots of good roles and other opportunities await them in the future. We can only hope some of those roles will bring them back to our festival in the years to come.

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